Learning About Life Under the Car, Lying in Gravel

Once age is in double digits and starts with a 7, you’re given license to reminisce about what’s gone before. The brain, of its own volition, may take on this responsibility, regurgitating the past for consideration and review. The happy, joyous moments are meant to be remembered.

A friend and I recently entered into a conversation about our individual life lessons. What did you learn and how did you learn it? This conversation guided me to rediscovering some forgotten nuggets of wisdom that had passed out of consciousness but had not left my being.

I determined that one of the most fruitful fields offering life lessons for me was our gravel driveway. More specifically the gravel driveway under our family vehicles.

My first recollection from the gravel was beside my Dad under the family’s ’48 Ford. He was a son of The Depression, so take it for granted he was a fixer of things. That generation had to be. But he had some additional skills having worked some as a mechanic before WWI.

The first time you pull yourself under an automobile can be a bit surprising, like seeing the other side of the moon. The underbelly has always been there, but remains unseen unless we get on our backs and crawl under. It’s a tight fit, restricted by the gravel below and the undercarriage above.

First timers don’t yet understand engines and transmissions from that perspective. They’ve probably heard of mufflers, but seeing the large pipe going from the front to rear, leading to a large rusty and corroded whatchamacallit, well, it takes some time to figure it all out.

This first time, Dad was repairing the transmission. He had pulled it out alone, gravity helping him. Putting it back required defying gravity with the help of another. Heavy things got much heavier under the car because one’s best leverage was lost by way of the cramped workspace. One of the gears had chipped and Dad tore into the transmission and replaced the guilty gear set. A feat I never considered, I always just replaced the whole transmission. But then I wasn’t a son of The Depression.

There, on my back, moments of education and realization occurred. Rods connect to levers that actually shift the gears. “Oh, so that’s what happens when I push in the clutch and move the gear shift.”

Most of this is silent education, the self figuring things out. Some of it comes from Dad, “The nut on that bolt is reverse threaded,” which exploded my newly acquired belief in righty tight-y and lefty loose-y.

It was here that I learned that just because there was a nut and you had the correct wrench the nut wasn’t always going to go peacefully. Being a contortionist was always a blessing. My double-jointed brother was Dad’s favorite helper, but he had somehow escaped duty on this day.

The top bolts of the tranny were always the worst. Bolts were tightened by very slight, seemingly endless turns. Even sockets were sometimes ineffective in the cramped spaces and more than one wrench was modified out of future usefulness to complete a single purpose on the gravel.

Being able to finish the seemingly endless or impossible task, the gift to keep trying was one of the greatest gifts I harvested from that gravel. I learned to bear down and just keep trying. A gift that kept on giving long after I walked away from the gravel.

I admired my Dad’s dedication to self-sufficiency. Born out of that terrible Great Depression when there really wasn’t any other choice, it sustained him and his family even when the “good times” returned.

In retrospect, perhaps the gravel’s single greatest gift was simply the time spent laying next to my Dad. It was not only the car that I was seeing from a new perspective, but also him. I was being the gopher (go fer this, go fer that) of the day, helping in a very small way. I thought at the time that it was more of an equal partnership, him and I, Mechanics Inc. But as wisdom encroached into my life, my eyes of understanding were opened and I came to understand I was more of a convenience to him than anything else.

He was not a warm fuzzy Dad. Not easy to figure out. He was aloof, seemingly stern, a man of few words. In fact, at times I thought most of his words were of the swearing type, connected to anger. My child logic deducted he was not approachable and I needed to tread lightly around him.

He had as little understanding of how to bridge the gap between us as I had about having a relationship with him. Social skills were not gifted to him. I felt tongue-tied in his presence, not knowing what to say to communicate with him.

Thus, he felt a stranger to me.

But there on the gravel, busting our knuckles together, covering our arms and hands in grease, completing an at times exasperating job together, we connected for a moment and I could see that my child logic was way wrong. For a moment I could see into his heart.

I could see past my view of his shortcomings. From that upside down perspective, I could see, or better said, feel, that he was a good, loving, man. That I was lucky he was my father.

We were comrades of the mechanic wars! Barriers melted away, as happens for comrades, and I could see a kind, gentle side previously hidden from my view. My misjudgments washed away and his love for his family and dedication to their wellbeing presented itself. I realized I should not mistake a lack of social skills for a lack of love or desire to be a good husband and father.

And that realization is the reason I will always be grateful for that gravel driveway.

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